Courtesy of Mr. Russell Shaw, 1440 Munson St., Flint,
I first learned of this tragedy three or four years ago. Last
fall, when my wife and I made a trip visiting relatives in Fremont,
Mich., we took time out to run down this story and get as many
facts as possible. With the help of Mr. Austin Cochrane, I got the
newspaper clipping which is a reprint that appeared in the Newaygo
Republican about a year ago. With him we visited the church where
the funeral was held, also the cemetery where we were able to
verify the exact date from the tombstones.
I was unable to learn much from my interview with Mr. Geo.
Haight. He and Oscar Evans, were at the rear of the barn, near the
spot where the boiler came out. Mr. Evans received a broken leg,
plus minor injuries. Mr. Haight was badly hurt and lay unconscious
for a time. What he knows is only what he learned from others
later. Geo. later married his brothers (Charles) widow and has
lived on his place ever since. Over the years Geo. has found bits
of metal when plowing the fields on both sides of the road. One
piece of the engine he found not long ago lay in the wood lot
behind where Geo. is standing in the snap shot, that would be a
distance of some 500 yds.
Those of us old enough to have lived in the days before and
during the coming of the gas buggy, remember the steam farm engine
with more or less fondness, more if you happen to be one who worked
around them. Of course there was much that did not seem so
wonderful at the time, the long hours that started before day
break, the sweat and dirt, the breakdowns and bog-downs, the
headaches -and sometimes heartaches.
This story concerning a tragedy that occurred sixty-five years
ago was perhaps the worst boiler explosion that ever happened on a
farm anywhere, in numbers killed and injured. The location was an
area known as Big Prairie, in western lower Michigan. The in closed
newspaper cliping is a copy of the original article that was
printed in the Newaygo Republican a few days after the explosion.
The snapshot is of the old barn as it looks today, very much the
same as it was then, except for the roofing over the old shingles
and the lean-to. The man in the picture is Mr. Geo. Haight one of
the two men still living who were at the scene when the explosion
took place. Mr. Haight was twenty years of age then. The engine
stood just left of where Mr. Haight is standing. The house, since
replaced, was behind me (taking the picture) across the road from
Mr. Austin Cochrane now living in Fremont Mich, also twenty
years of age at the time, lived a few miles from there. He and his
mother were called upon to do the singing at the funeral, held in
the open at a neighborhood church for six of the seven victims. Mr.
Cochrane states that the funeral procession of horse and buggys was
well over a mile long. Today in the nearby cemetery you can read on
their tombstones, DIED JULY 31, 1899.
This article was copied from our Scrap Book. We think it may
have happened 60 years ago.
Appalling Accident Six Men Killed Instantly Four
Injured, one of whom died
The most terrible catastrophe that ever shocked this county took
place in the township of Big Prairie, about eight miles east of
White Cloud, last Monday morning. A threshing machine and portable
engine were taken to the residence of Charles Haight last Saturday
evening for the purpose of threshing Mr. Haight’s grain.
Preparations were going forward for commencing work last Monday
morning about nine o’clock, and the men who made up the regular
crew were working around the machines, and several neighbors, who
had assembled to assist, were standing about. A fire had been built
in the boiler, which had been filled Saturday night, but a large
portion of the water must have leaked out, as when about forty
pounds of steam had been made it was noticed that the water gauge
showed no signs of water in the boiler.
Mr. Crabtree the engineer, commenced to pull the fire from
underneath the boiler, when Alford Haight turned the water through
the injector before anyone knew what he was doing, and in an
instant there was an explosion which shook the earth and was heard
a distance of four miles. When the smoke and dust cleared away a
sight was presented which caused strong men to shudder and women to
faint away. The bodies of six men lay scattered about, mangled,
bruised, broken and dead, and four others injured more or less
seriously, one of them dying at 10 o’clock Monday night.
The dead were Charles Haight, Alford Haight, Charles Crabtree,
Bert Salter, Cecil Priest, 16 years old, Raymond Howe, 16 years
old. The injured were: George Overly, died since. Oscar Evans, leg
broken and minor injuries. George Haight, badly bruised.
The engine was located between the house and barn, about 75 feet
from each and the separator stood in the barn. When the explosion
occurred the boiler headed straight for the ‘barn, crushing and
killing as it went. It struck the separator in front and demolished
about half of it and forced the other part out of doors. The rear
of the barn was literally torn to pieces, timbers twelve inches
square were splintered like matches and even the sill of the barn
was broken into bits. The boiler landed fourteen rods from where it
started by actual measurement. A rear wheel of the separator was
forced into the cylinder and fastened there as tightly as if it had
been built that way. The door of the boiler was flung against the
dwelling house which was substantially built, and struck it flatly
with such force that all the lettering and marks upon, it are
plainly imprinted in the wood. A large piece of the engine struck
the cornice of the porch just above Mrs. Charles Haight’s
Dr. Kuhn of White Cloud, was seen by the writer after his return
from the scene and said it was the most terrible sight he ever saw.
He and Dr. J. C. Branch were sent for and reached the place as soon
as horses could get them there. Dr. Kuhn said that four of the dead
bodies had been washed, and lay on. the barn floor, and two others
were on boards being washed when they arrived. ‘Never, in all
my experience, have I seen human bodies so fightfully mutilated as
these were. A Mr. Blaisdell, Isaac Coon, and Andrew Goebell, who
were in the barn when it happened, were not injured but so dazed
and stunned that they could not realize what had happened.
A young man by the name of LeBaron carried the news to White
Cloud. When he arrived there his face was still black and his
clothing bloody and he said he had been struck and knocked down by
the flying body of a man. Three of the bodies lay piled together,
which accounts for the first report that only three were killed;
the last three had not been discovered at that time. Mr. Overley
lingered until 10 o’clock in the evening and died without
becoming conscious. The physicians said they injected solutions of
nitro glycerine and whiskey into his body, but with little apparent
effect. All the men except Mr. Overley, who home was in Mecosta
county, were residents of Big Prairie. Three, Charles Haight,
Salter, and Crabtree, were married and leave three, one and six
children respectively. Aside from the boys, those killed were from
thirty to forty years old. A jury was impaneled toy W. S. Utley,
Jr., J. P. and a verdict of accidental death returned.
By Pat King, Kenneth, Minnesota
I could not resist taking issue with the statement on page 39 of
the current issue of the November-December I.M.A. 1965 that the two
wheel engine tender is a headache. The article also insinuated that
it took a section of land to turn around on. If the guide rods of
the tender are adjusted correctly and the undercarriage isn’t
bent or sprung out of shape, you can turn just as short-either
forward or backward-even in loose plowed ground as you could
without the tender. What constitutes a real headache is trying to
dig coal out of a small opening in a bunk on the platform,
especially if the coal is in large chunks as it usually was in the
steam engine era. Nevertheless, it should be broken up in small
pieces because it produces more heat that way. In this manner the
coal can be used in a more economical firing. It would also be much
more convenient to shovel the coal, if it was out in the open on
the coal compartment on top of the tender.
A tender has many advantages, one being that more water can be
kept on hand in case the tank man has to haul it a long distance.
Still another advantage is that the tender removes much of the
weight from the engine, facilitating crossing soft spots and weak
bridges with less danger of getting stuck or breaking through a
So. it is my contention that the two wheel automatic tender was
one of the best things that ever happened when threshing was done
with steam power. The two wheel tender was made to work and it did
work perfectly; but like every thing else, it must be kept in
working order to get satisfactory service.